Lahu hill tribe children

Hill tribe trekking in Kyaing Tong

Kyaing Tong in 2000: The Wild East

I last visited Kyaing Tong (pronounced “Chang Tong” and sometimes spelled Keng Tung), a small market hill town in Myanmar’s Eastern Shan State, in 2000. It was one of the highlights of my travels that year, and as I related some of the tales to Laura, I figured that they were worth sharing with a wider audience. So, before I get into this year’s adventures here is Kyaing Tong 2000 style.

Kyaing Tong is the main town of the Myanmar portion of the infamous Golden Triangle, which also straddles the hill tribe areas of Laos and Thailand. The Golden Triangle supplied most of the world’s street heroin until the trade was usurped by Afghans in the late 90’s. The main man in the area was a ruthless warlord named Khun Sa, who ruled over two armies called the Shan State Army and the Muang Tai Army. At one point, Khun Sa is said to have had a personal militia that numbered more than 18000 men and women. The region was typically beyond the Burmese government’s control and/or beset by continual fighting between the opposing forces.

Unsurprisingly, tourists were not particularly welcome in this part of Myanmar. Over the years, the government eventually struck a number of deals with these various factions and the area began to open up a little. This was indeed the case when I headed to Kyaing Tong in March, 2000. Getting in was still complicated and then, as is now, it is nigh on impossible to travel overland between Kyaing Tong and the rest of Myanmar. This probably accounts for the low numbers of tourists that make it out here. You either have to fly in or out, or nip across the border from Northern Thailand and head back out the same way. In 2000, most people headed overland from Thailand crossing the border at Mae Sai-Tachileik and taking a tortuous 12-16 hour 4WD trip up to the town. To up the ante, the Myanmar border guards held on to your passport to ensure you exited via Tachileik.

We headed up to Kyaing Tong in the company of a very large Australian chap, who asked way too many questions about Khun Sa. Our driver and guide was an amiable American-Mongolian guy, who ran a guest house right on the Thai side of the border. He was married to a woman from the Wa hill tribe in Shan State, so he had lots of connections and was well respected in the area. Back then, there was no hill tribe trekking available since foreigners were banned from heading off the main road. We could visit hill tribe village on the main road and we we also had a permit to visit the bizarre enclave of Mong La. Mong La was set up to service Chinese gamblers. In the center of town was an enormous pink casino, looking highly incongruous in rural Shan.

The town had many bizarre sites: a “tribal village”, which was effectively a human zoo where Chinese tourists could gawp at Burmese hill tribes, an Opium Eradication Museum that mysteriously had an opium field out back, and a market that was a center for the illegal wildlife trade. We bought a cute but miserable looking dog at the market to save it from a no doubt foul fate, but as we entered a local restaurant, the chef asked us ‘how did we want the dog cooked?’ I kid ye not! It really was that kind of place.

We stayed overnight near the casino. I doubt we were staying legally but no-one seemed to care. To cap off an odd day, we spent the night disco dancing with a group of off-duty Thai ladyboy performers from a local theater. The Aussie chap, was rather keen on the fun too, and I figured he would have bedded a ladyboy or two if he thought there was a sniff of information about Khun Sa on offer!

Later in the trip, the Aussie told us he was a journalist working for a big Australian newspaper. Our guide was a little annoyed by this. Foreign journalists were not too welcome in these parts. I have some vague memory of the chap sending us his subsequent article. Thankfully, it was fairly tame stuff… a travelogue maybe.

On the way back from Mong La, we illegally drove off the road and visited a hill tribe village. It was crazy exotic with a spooky spirit house and altar like rock that our guide informed us was used in headhunting rituals in the past. The kids in the village were absolutely fascinated by the blonde hair of me and my girlfriend at the time, Alice. An old woman came by and the kids pointed out our odd colored hair and murmured something at her. The woman strode over to Alice, pulled down her skirt and knickers and looked inside, nodded her head, and strolled off yelling something at the kids. Not sure what was going on, but the woman’s curiosity was evidently sated. I suppose anywhere else in the world we would have been horrified, but here it just added to the general air of surreal.

We stayed the night at the village, which was definitely not legal. However, we agreed on the story that the car had broken down and we had no other choice. The guide was cool with this, and he assured us no harm would come to us or the villagers. As it goes, no cops came by so we were all good. Another odd thing about the area was that it was not under the control of the Burmese government. The area was administered by a local militia called the Wa State Army. We had to pass through a Wa checkpoint to get to Mong La.

On returning to Kyaing Tong, we visited the shaman of the town. As I recall he told our futures and let us know that if we had any bother in town we were to call on him. This was to prove prescient! We pulled into our guest house late, threw down our bags, and headed off to the showers to clean up. I remember leaving the door ajar, but thought nothing of it. I had never been robbed on the road, even in South America where it seemed like a traveler rite of passage was getting held up! Indeed, Burma was easily the safest country I had visited. In 1995, my buddy Graham had accidently left an expensive looking camera at the foot of Mandalay Hill. Several hours later it was still there. Anyways, we returned to the room, and something seemed amiss. We checked through all our stuff and found that half our traveler’s checks were missing. Not the worst problem ever but it would be a pain to call Amex and get new ones issued in SE Asia. We let the driver know, but we insisted the police not be involved, since we knew that would be major hassle.

In the morning, we called our shaman friend. He told us to leave the guest house for an hour or so. When we got back, he lead us through a sham of a search and there they were in clear view of everyone near the shower. Everyone, including us, feigned great delight that they had turned up and that it was just the result of an honest mistake. No harm done and we moved on! The guide told us that the villagers fear the shaman, so as soon as he got involved, the thief quickly ‘fessed up.

There wasn’t much to do in Kyaing Tong, but the market was worth a few visits. As I recall, the market was fairly small but as it was the main trading area for villages, plenty of exotic looking hill tribes traded there. We bought a few cool looking handicrafts and clothes and, of course, took a gazillion photos.

After seven decidedly odd days, we flew back to Tachileik and headed back to Thailand. Tachileik was a quiet backwater then and very few people crossed the border. Even, Thai and Burmese traffic was low. Mae Sai was fairly unremarkable and the only thing of note was the extraordinary amount of dried mushrooms for sale on the main drag.

Kyaing Tong in 2016: Tourist-free East

Buddhist monastery. Keng Tung
Buddhist monastery near Keng Tung.

The vast majority of tourists visit just four places in Myanmar: Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake, and Bagan. That leaves a whole lot of country for people like us that prefer the quieter, off the beaten track places. It actually amazes me how easily put off travelers are. Kyaing Tong is a mere 45 minutes by plane from Inle, but that seems an insurmountable barrier to most.

Unlike in 2000, you are now allowed to go into the hills and visit the tribes that live there. There are 13 main tribes in Shan State and we hoped to visit a number of them. Although it could be possible to visit without a guide, I am not convinced it would be worthwhile. You would have nobody to make introductions and unless you spoke local languages, you would be reduced to merely gawping at people and houses. There is still one restriction in place: you cannot stay overnight in a village since they do not have permits to accept foreigners. Both our guides have plans for longer multi-day trips, but as yet the government has not given the go ahead.

We found two highly recommended guides via Lonely Planet and the blogosphere. We were originally going to do two treks but enjoyed the area so much we added a third at the last minute. Our guide for day one and three was Sai Leng, a Shan man, with a strong sense of Shan and Buddhist identity, and a preposterously infectious laugh. On day two, we headed out with Samtip, a slightly more serious chap, but a great guide who really knew his stuff. He provided food from home and, evidently, his wife is a great cook.

Treks typically cost $80-100 for the guide and transport. This is an all in cost so the more people there are the cheaper it is per person.

Trek One. A day at a Loi longhouse

The longhouse.
The Loi longhouse.

Sai Leng already had clients on day one so we joined up with them for the day. Celine and Bastian, from France, were on a short holiday in Myanmar and Thailand, and had quickly figured that the most fun was to be had in out of the way places. This was their first trip to Asia, and they clearly had good travel sense! Sai Leng picked us up at 7.30 so we could make a quick stop at the market to pick up lunch, and some gifts for the villagers. Sai had been visiting these villages for twelve years so he had a good feel for what the villagers needed. He picked up some seeds so that the villagers could grow some radish. No sweets for the kids, and he advised us not to take any so that the kids wouldn’t get into the bad habit of expecting tourists to bring them tooth rot. Sai also picked up a ream of copy paper. An odd gift, I thought!

Before we headed out, we quickly nipped into the police station to get permits to visit the villages. The villages are out on the Mong La road, so they are close to the border and in areas not exactly under government control. So, no changes there! Now I understood what the paper was for. The government pays the police a salary, but doesn’t provide funds for office supplies. To smooth the wheels of the permit process, guides are in the habit of providing stationary! Sai told us that the police were so embarrassed about their office, and more to the point, lack of copy machine, that they forbade him to bring us in! Amusingly, Sai could provide paper but couldn’t make the copier work! So, we headed into town to make passport copies.

Finally, we hit the road. And, what a fine road it was. Bucolic, as Laura would say. Lots of lovely villages and photogenic rice fields. Shan State grows a lot of rice, which it exports over the border to the constantly needy Chinese. In fact, China takes almost everything Shan State grows. Forty kilos of rice costs a mere 14000 kyat. Just over $10. After the floods in West Myanmar in 2015, the Myanmar government blocked the export of goods, which caused the cost to plummet, which was a real hardship to the local economy. Everything is back to normal now, and those big trucks keep on rolling over the border. We also heard a story that made us think that local autonomy for former militia groups might be good for peace but potentially disastrous for the environment due to lack of big government oversight. I get that local governments need to generate funds for their fiefdoms, but counter to the national government’s desire to protect the environment? I think not! In the past year or so, a local official was bribed by a Chinese company to allow them to cut some teak trees from the abundant forests in Shan. Lorry loads of wood crossed the border. Eventually, two Chinese men were captured and sentenced to long prison sentences for illegal logging. Obviously, a few months later, a little deal was done with Myanmar’s key ally and biggest trading partner, and the two men walked free. Grrr!

We got the first Loi village around lunch time. We saw two other tourists there, who were the only ones we saw in three days in the hills. Before lunch, we decided to hike the short distance, an hour or so, up to the bigger village. The upper village was situated in a beautiful little dip in the hills. There were two main parts: the older section housed the monastery and the monks; and in the lower section were the traditional longhouses and storage barns. As soon as we got to the monastery, we were engulfed by an unruly mob of local kids. There is no school in the Loi villages, although foundations have been laid for one, and the kids have nothing to do aside look after their siblings. We were obviously the entertainment for the day. The kids seemed somehow more adult than their US counterparts, maybe it was because eight year old girls had one year old brothers or sisters strapped to their backs.

Loi children.
The mob of Loi children in the entrance to the monastery.

The monastery was a beautiful 400 year old, Thai style wat. The lower parts of the building reminded me somewhat of the white brick temples in Tibet. The roof was unmistakably Thai. The whole structure was supported by towering teak logs. Above, the monastery was the shrine to the troublesome nats (animist spirits). Historically, all the hill tribes were animist. Some remain vehemently animist, while others mix Buddhism or Christianity with animism. One village rule we learnt: don’t poop at a point above the animist shrines unless you are asking for trouble!

Wan Seng monastery. Loi village
The ceiling of the Loi monastery.

After half an hour so of goofing with the kids, all fifty of them, we headed to one of the longhouses to meet the adults. Loi live in huge communal longhouses. The longhouse we visited had eighteen families housed within. Each family had their own sleeping compartment along the side walls. All the cooking stoves sat in the communal hallway. Families had their own stove and cooked and ate within the family unit. There was little or no tradition of communal feasts. Families maintained an area of rice field and arable land. When there was a hunt, usually for wild boar, the raw meat was divided among the families. Some of the kids and women still wore traditional clothes, but the men wore non-traditional shirts and pants. The communal areas were black with soot and grime from the fires. Probably not the healthiest environment in which to while away the day, but that is seemingly what our host did.

The cooking fire. Longhouse

We sat with our host for tea and convivial conversation. The guy continually plied us with fresh tea that he had recently dried over the stove. This stuff was like no tea I had ever tasted. It was powerful, smoky, earthy stuff with an espresso-like kick. Conversation revolved around our differing lifestyles. The reason why our host was lazing round the stove smoking and drinking all day was because he had three son-in-laws. In traditional Loi culture, men go to the house of their bride for ten years. They have to provide their mother-in-laws with a silver bracelet, to give thanks for the milk that nourished their brides. The man of the house put his son-in-laws to work in the fields, for the hand of his daughters. The silver bracelets provided to the mother-in-law were large, expensive, but plainly engraved. Later in the day, a couple of women down the trail asked if we were married. We nodded yes and pointed to our wedding rings. They were sorely unimpressed at our small gifts and pointed at their larger bracelets and smirked.

Host asked us where we from. He assumed all four of us were from the same tribe since we looked alike and wore similar clothes. He was baffled when we said we were from countries several thousand miles apart. Conversation went on like this for an hour or so, the host becoming ever more confused by our strange ways! At one point, he asked us what we did for work. We both said, ‘Computers!’, at the same time. The guide looked at us both, then our host, and made a valiant effort to explain our jobs to a person who had never seen a computer. He mimed typing, and our host asked if we picked fruit! I got out our tablet and showed our host, and he said he didn’t understand how those things could give people jobs. Very funny. I was glad that the host had got to question us about our way of life since quite often visits to hill tribes is a one way exchange only. Foreigner gawps and photographs local, and the local folks take away nothing in return. Finally, we handed out some radish seeds to each family in the house, and said our goodbyes.

Sibling love. Wan Seng village
Loi girl.

Photogenic Loi girl and her baby sibling.

We took a few more photos above the village in the late afternoon light and headed back to the lower village. We had a long drive back, so we stopped off to take a quick look round another wonderful old monastery, before heading back to Kyaing Tong.

We sealed a deal with Sai Leng to trek with him in a couple of days and he dropped us off at the Azure for some much needed repast!

Day Two: Lahu Shi

Lahu grandmother and granddaughters
The Lahu chief’s wife and her granddaughters.

For our second trek we were in the company of a guide, Samtip, and the French couple from the airport, Eric and Marine. Our destination was a couple of remote Lahu Shi villages, northwest of Kyaing Tong. The villages are very poor, whatever that means in a remote self sufficient rural village, and particularly unused to foreign visitors. In fact, Samtip told us that the local kids typically run away from white people. Given the history of the white man in foreign lands, I can’t say that I blame them! Maybe their great-grandparents should have taken the same approach. Despite being self-confessed not dad material, I somehow seem to make a connection with kids everywhere. So, let’s see what happens.

Whereas yesterday’s Frenchies were a delight to travel with, Eric and Marine were a little testy. Marin, in particular, always wanted to be seen to be doing and saying the right thing. She was PC out of control… like a do gooder Seattle-ite on steroids. I am sure you get the picture. At the market, Samtip wanted to buy some shampoo for the girls in the village. This had been a request on his last visit. Samtip wanted to buy several small bottles but Marin insisted on one large bottle because, ‘villagers are not like us, they shower together, and always share things’. In addition, she was worried about the pollution from all the plastic. Oh, dear. Buxton stepped in fast here. I pointed out the plastic water bottle in her bag, and asked her not to presume the ways and means of people she had not yet met. ‘Leave it to the guide, surely, he knows best’. Thankfully, she was thick skinned so we continued to chat amiably throughout the day. But, she could barely go half an hour without questioning the guide’s intentions and comments on Lahu life. Marine really wanted to do the right thing and I am sure her heart was in the right place, but she came across as an awful Victorian colonialist! Maybe, I should send her a copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism for Christmas! You should have seen her face though when the guide suggested candy for the kids. Didn’t stop her taking photos though as the kids mobbed Samtip for sweets!

Later on, she commented on how the villages should be taught to make compost from the fruit and veg peelings they regularly toss aside. I couldn’t be bothered to point out that the pigs and goats regularly scoop up and eat the discarded peels!

Lahu village
The first Lahu village.

Anyways, back to the trek. The villages were some distance from where we parked. It was a two-hour hike through dusty rice paddies and 600m ascent to the first village. Lahu Shi situate their villages on hill tops and ridges and farm on the steep slopes below. The villages move every few years to make sure the land isn’t completely depleted of nutrients. They moved to a new spot, houses and barns and all. The houses and barns are built without using nails so that they can be easily assembled and disassembled. Unlike the Loi, Lahu families live in single family units.

As we approached the village, the usual welcoming party of kids approached at a distance. They seemed a little tentative, but Samtip was encouraged that they hadn’t run away. We started to take a couple of photos, which piqued the interest of a few kids. They looked at the photos briefly and ran away. But, slowly they kept coming back. They squealed in delight when we showed them a couple of photographs of themselves. I filmed a quick video of some of the kids, much to the delight of a number of their friends. A few others posed for the odd pictures, then before we knew it the whole gang mobbed us. We marched into town with a full army of kids at the vanguard!

Lahu kids
Lahu kids.

3 Lahu boys
Cute! Lahu child

Lahu kids.

The village shrines seemed a little less ostentatious than the Loi villages, but I guess an itinerant community probably thought it unnecessary to build grand permanent structures. Like the day before, we headed over to the house of the village headman, who invited us in for tea. We sat around chatting a while, had lunch, and drank gallons of freshly made green tea. The headman was quite a character, and after we had made a few attempts at coaxing a tune out of a set of pipes, he got up played a tune or two and danced for guests. Apparently, we were quite privileged to see this, since the particular performance is only enacted once a year on Lahu New Year. By now the kids were getting bolder, and moved closer. They wanted to see the videos again, which they loved. And then I showed them a bunch of photos from our travels. They were absolutely entranced, and chatted among themselves about what they were seeing. After ten minutes or so, I had kids climbing all over me to take a look. Very sweet… and apparently unprecedented! Glad we made friends!

Paul shows the kids videos on the tablet. Lahu
Paul and the kids in the Lahu village.

We handed over gifts of shampoo, toothpaste, and soap, which were well received. By the way, the girls grabbed the shampoo and spirited it away. I was sure there would be no sharing going on!

We wandered around the village a little and handed out more toiletries to other families. I normally balk at handing out candy to kids, but it was clear that no teeth rotting was going on here. There ain’t enough travelers up here to cause cavities anytime soon.

We headed out to village number two. We spent less time since time was short but we did drop in on a small school. This was the first school in either of the villages. Probably twenty kids were in class in a small bamboo hut. There is a problem retaining teachers out in the hills, but the current teacher was doing a good job of keeping the attention of the kids as she taught them rudimentary Burmese. The lessons are a start and Samtip told us that he helps support the schools and hopes in time to attract more foreign aid. Lahu people rarely leave the tribe to seek their fortune elsewhere, but it is great that they are starting to get a feel for the wider world. Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen.

Blue skirts. Lahu
Lahu kids in their traditional blue clothes in the second village we visited.

On the way back we made a quick stop in a Palaung tribal village. The village is a little more prosperous than the Lahu villages, so there were the usual signs of wealth such proper schools, pickup trucks, and little shops. It was a colorful place, the local women still weaved and wore traditional clothes, dogs, kids and pigs ran amok, but Laura was becoming ever more distracted by the sunset. So the cameras came out and we headed into the paddy fields for a few photos of golden light and bucolic scenes. It was nice to see wet, green rice fields after only seeing dry brown fields in Sulawesi and northern Vietnam. The fields on the flat valley bottom around Kyaing Tong have enough water to produce two harvests per year, so many of them were flooded and reflected the hills and golden light.

Paddy sunset. Keng Tung
Sunset over a flooded rice terrace.

Day three: Buddhist ceremony, rice paddies, and Akha and Ann villages

Sai Leng picked us up bright and early for what was meant to be a trip to Ho Kyim on the Tachileik Road to visit four Akha villages. The villages were all of the same tribe, but had different religious leanings. There was a straight up animist village, Buddhist village, Christian village, and a village of mixed denominations. However, Sai asked us if we would like to visit his village, since this was the last day of an important Buddhist ceremony. The ceremony had lasted for ten days, and was presided over by 62 monks from around the region. Laura had a commented a few times that we had not really seen any real expressions of cultural and religious life in Myanmar, so this seemed like a good opportunity.

Young monks. Keng Tung
Novices at the ceremony.

The ceremony was the annual renewal of the 227 rules of the monastic community. The monks recited the rules and confessed any transgressions of the rules in the past year to the congregation. Non-monastics could air their transgressions and renew they lay ‘vows’ too. At the end of the ceremony, the community would be deemed pure and a worthy source of religious merit. Throughout the ten days, people from all over the area, would come to give alms from the monks and receive teachings. Some monks were famed fortune tellers, so people came to see how the next few months would pan out. The monks were housed in temporary rattan huts, and in the monastery buildings. The villagers, paid for the event and for food for monks and guests. It was quite an event, and given cost, it is probably good that the ceremony is hosted by a different village every year.

Financial donations were collected centrally by the monastery. The monks and local dignitaries then convened a meeting to decide how the funds would be disbursed. The money helped support the monastery, local education, and community projects such as road building.

We sat with a few monks, and chatted away and drank tea, and one monk even told our fortune. Laura will have a stomach issue before April (a bit of a no-brainer for a foreigner in Asia!), and I will be involved in some sort of accident but not necessarily as the victim. After April, I will have a run of good fortune. We will let you know how that all pans out!

The ceremony was pretty noisy, since the ceremony MC continually read out the names of donors over a way to powerful and not well EQ’ed PA. Laura’s ears were near bleeding, so we would were glad to move on.

We decided to head to a different set of villages since time was short. There is a short loop that takes in Ann and Akha tribe villages just North of town. This is the touristy trek, not that you would notice! On the way there, we stopped to watch a group of villagers transplanting rice stalks. With his typical exuberance, Sai Leng led us over to the field and exchanged jokes with the workers. He explained that rice seedlings initially need to grow close together, but once they reach a certain height they need to be transplanted to fields with more space in between plants. It is incredible how much hard labor goes into each plate of rice that billions of people eat every day.

Backbreaking labor. Keng Tung
Worker in a rice field outside Keng Tung.

Akha men and women sleep in separate rooms. Akha women are believed to turn into ogresses at night, and the men fear being devoured by them. Akha seem an all round fearsome bunch. Unless I heard incorrectly, it seems that women who give birth to twins kill one or both of the babies soon after birth.

We were greeted at the beginning of the loop by a group of Akha women in full traditional garb. They were selling hats and textiles. Very colorful. Sai recommended that we wait until after we had visited his friend’s house before buying, since his friends might be put out if we received their hospitality but bought souvenirs elsewhere. We dropped in at the house of the Akha village shaman. Sai was a student of his, so they were very well acquainted. The shaman was holding court with a couple of other students and they were all looking a bit worse for wear. Lunch was served, as was the local hooch. The booze was made from sticky rice and was flavored by herbs and spices picked from the forest. I usually pass on the homemade fire water these days having heard too many horror stories of booze adulterated with methanol. However, Sai was happy to knock back a couple so it seemed rude not to. It was damn fine stuff. Obviously, having knocked back one and shown appreciation, it opened the door to a few more.

The shaman told a bunch of humorous stories, which became quite animated the more wasted he got. He told us about a forest herb that has a viagra-like effect. Only for the old guys, apparently! ‘Don’t take it at night though, since we sleep with the men, and you end up very frustrated!’. He explained the story with hilariously appropriate, or was it inappropriate hand gestures! There were a couple of newlyweds in the house and they were allowed a ‘nap’ room. Older couples had to take a ‘nap’ in the forest.

The household had some handicrafts for sale but they were pretty low quality… no problem though since the Akha women from earlier knew the route and had set up shop once more a little ways along. The women lightened our purse a dollar or ten, and we walked away with some lovely textiles.

Akha headdress
Akha lady

Akha vendors in their headdresses that ward off evil spirits.

We headed off towards an Ann tribe village. Ann women are famed for their blackened teeth. They believe it to be a sign of beauty. The tradition is dying out a little but a few old women will gurn at you to show their lovely dentures. The teeth are blackened with a mixture of tree sap and ash. Judging by the fact that these ladies all have a full set of teeth, it seems to be a healthy practice.

Before reaching the village, we happened upon a prize giving event at a local school for Akha, Ann, and Wa children. Everyone was in their traditional finery, so it was quite a sight. The kids also went through a few skits to keep the parents entertained.

Parents at hill tribe school recital.
Moms at the hill tribe school awards ceremony.

Since everyone was at the school, the village was quiet. We dropped in on the local shaman, who was another natural goof and entertainer. This guy was sharp too. His daughter was recently married off to a local boy, but he decided not to press the boy for a big dowry. Instead he asked the son-in-law to make sure he was looked after later in life. A good deal all round, since it relieved the young chap of an onerous debt early in life. The shaman’s wife asked us to take her photo and Sai offered to print it off for them. The woman, rather sweetly, said she wanted a reminder for the kids of how beautiful she was when younger.

Ann grandma
Ann woman

Ann women at the chief’s house.

All three days, I was absolutely astonished by the overall health and beauty of hill tribe people of all ages. They rarely leave the villages and almost always married within the tribe. I suppose like many, I thought this would lead to genetic health issues, but there was no evidence of this anywhere we visited! We met many people well into their eighties and still kicking ass around the village. There are no doctors up here, and the only medicine comes in with the guides. Probably a bit naive on my part..but these people seem in rude health!

We headed back to Kyaing Tong, and reflected on an amazing three days. I am really glad we had incredible guides, who had the ability to connect well with the villagers and tourists alike. I would have hated to just rock up, gawp, photograph the locals and leave. Instead, despite the language and culture gap, villager and tourist, had fruitful interactions. Just like hanging out with new friends, which is exactly as it should be!

Paddy sunset. Keng Tung
Sunset over a flooded rice paddy near the Akha village.

Getting there and away

We flew in from Mandalay with Yangon Air. The flight wasn’t cheap, $118 per person, but it was fairly convenient and is the only legal way for foreigners to travel between central Myanmar and the border areas on the Golden Triangle. As ever on Burmese domestic flights, don’t believe that it is a direct flight even if your boarding pass says so. There aren’t too many planes in Myanmar, so one flight might touch down in a number of cities before reaching the final destination. Our flight stopped off in Tachileik for a few minutes. This was evidently causing great consternation to one elderly lady. I think the flight must have originated in Yangon and would have put down at Mandalay and Tachileik before Kyaing Tong. She was berating her guide, believing that the flight was direct, and accused him of misleading her. I am assuming they were friends since the guide gave back as much as he got, and was unbelievably rude to her. A nice bit of entertainment though for everyone else!

Kyaing Tong airport is a mere two kilometers from town and a pick-up in costs 5000 kyat ($4). We met a eager to please French couple, Eric and Marine, at the airport, who we hooked up with a couple of days later for an amusing day in the hills.

We took one of the many express buses that head to the border at Tachileik to exit Myanmar. The bus cost 10000 kyat ($8) and took about 5 hours to get to the border. The bus stopped for lunch and was comfortable. The first part of the journey is quite beautiful, passing through some lovely hills and villages. The border crossing was simple and hassle free. A pick up took us the Mai Sae bus station for $0.40 each. The onward minibus to Chiang Rai cost just over a dollar.

Accommodation and food

Market noodles. Keng Tung
Breakfast noodles at the Kyaing Tong market.

We stayed at the Naung Tong Hotel that sprawls across the southern end of the central market. The hotel’s decor is brutalist, but it was comfortable enough inside the room. There is fairly decent WiFi in the lobby. The breakfast was simple but tasty: toast, eggs, jam, juice, fruit, and Burmese puddings. The main manager has a decent command of English, and was helpful in booking onward travel and orienting us in town. The market starts early, 3.30am, and is noisy but neither of us were woken up by the clamour outside.

We only ate at two different spots. Partly out of laziness, but mainly because the food was so good why eat elsewhere? The Azure Restaurant is situated on the road that circles Naung Tong Lake. The chicken with ginger and chili was absolutely delicious as was the Chinese kale with tofu. The Myanmar draft beer wasn’t bad either. We also ate in an unnamed noodle street stand in the market. Shan state is famed for its tasty noodles, and even though it meant grabbing second breakfast it was not to be missed. We had noodles, egg, and greens, all mixed up in the chef’s own special concoction of herbs, spices, and nuts. Less than a dollar a plate!

On two of the trek days, we picked up various flavors of sticky rice, spicy bamboo, and spiced pork and chicken. We grabbed some of the delicious local oranges for dessert.

On one of the days, we shared lunch in a local house and the villagers chipped in with mountain rice and poppy leaf soup. We washed down lunch with local rice wine, imbued with local herbs. On the first trek, the man of the house brewed up freshly prepared tea from his own garden. The tea was heavily caffeinated and was akin to a tea espresso!

IPA bliss in Chiang Rai

After a fairly intense few months on the road we paused in Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand to recharge our batteries before crossing into Laos. Chiang Rai is a fairly unremarkable travel destination but very popular with elderly immigrants from the US and Europe, who take up residence here. It’s cheap, easy to get around, has lots of medical clinics and good restaurants, and more importantly, good pubs. Perfect for those getting on in life, who want or need to retire to a cheaper place than home. We stayed at the Condotel, which as the name suggests is part hotel and part condo (for the aforementioned retirees). The room was fantastic and extremely cheap ($14). Even better, it had a swimming pool. Sadly, our visit coincided with the evil cold weather system which recently brought huge snows to East Coast USA. It was frigid, and there was no way we could take a dip in the pool. Having sent all our warm gear home, we were absolutely freezing. Not exactly perfect conditions for relaxing and recharging.

There was one absolute highlight, though. We got chatting to an old English geezer at the hotel bar, and he let on that there was a local boozer that sold lots of foreign beer. My very empty IPA gland twitched, and off we went on a pilgrimage to find the promised land known as the Today Bar and the elixir of life held within. As we walked in, the barman asked us what we wanted, ‘Chang or Singha?’, the two local brews. Faces dropped. Anyways, we picked up the menu and there it was, Fullers India Pale Ale from London town. Bliss! We gleefully supped down a bottle or two, which resulted in the biggest smiles of the trip. Simple pleasures like this are unbelievably reviving when traveling. I don’t miss home at all but a few more reminders like this wouldn’t go amiss.


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