Trekking in Kyaingtong
By Whitney Light 19 June 2015
KYAINGTONG, Shan State — As we passed through the small village of Wenpin in eastern Shan State, girls decked out in sparkling pink modern skirts and tops scampered up the hillside. A few feet back, men prodded a fat, squealing hog into following.
“He doesn’t want to go,” said Sai Win. “He knows he will die.”
The Shan guide and I revised our day’s trekking route to watch the proceedings. A few hours later, we were sitting by a mountain stream watching Akha villagers prepare a feast—grilled pork, pork stew, pork-rice congee, roasted pork skin and spiced blood. Meanwhile, a man split bamboo into fine ribbons and wove them into “thousand eye” motifs to mount on auspicious trees. Male elders gathered in a circle to drink a toast of rice whiskey and eat from a ritual round of dishes.
There had been no way of knowing that this day was an occasion for worshipping ancestors and appeasing forest spirits. In the Akha belief system, ancestors oversee health, wealth and fertility, while spirits can wreak havoc on human life. Their rites and offerings number nine or twelve a year, although some sources say that sacrifices are made as often as once a week.
Welcomed to sit in on the event, we were privy to unique traditions in the way some “hill-tribe trekkers” probably hope for but don’t often get in tourist hotspots. I spotted fewer than five foreign tourists (alongside busloads of Chinese visitors) in town over the course of a week.
At present, Kyaingtong (also known as Kengtung and Chiang Tung, reflecting its history as a former city state of the Lanna kingdom) has the charm of a seemingly remote outpost, but it has the potential to grow into a much bigger visitor spot. Many tourists today probably can’t help but wonder, with premature nostalgia, what will development look like? Can it be done ethically and sustainably? Or will it end up with gawkers parading through “human zoos,” as critics call some tourist villages of northern Thailand, while poorer and more remote villages get no attention?
The only foreigner I spoke with during my stay was a Czech man at the bus station. We’d both just arrived after a five hour un-airconditioned journey on coaches packed with shoppers returning from Tachileik, “City of the Golden Triangle.” He wore a technical backpack complete with a tent. In contravention of, or oblivious to, the authorities’ ban on overnight trekking, he said he was going camping in the woods but wanted a cheap guesthouse for the night.
As elsewhere in Myanmar, however, there isn’t any truly budget accommodation in Kyaingtong. The Chinese family-run Law Yee Chain Hotel where I stayed starts at US$30 per night. The carpet throughout is threadbare and nothing has been replaced in perhaps 20 years. However, the staff are diligent, the rooms are spacious and the pastel pink walls hung with faded posters of wild horses and cherubs lend a certain aesthetic.
Although you are limited by what you can do in a day, routes for a combination of travel by motorbike and on foot fan out in all directions from the city center, encompassing Aeng, Akha, Akhu, Khun and Lawa villages, stunning views of valleys and rice terraces and the sleepy old British hill station of Loimwe.
It’s enough to keep you occupied for at least four days, with some time left for exploring the city. A mountain bike would be ideal for venturing down the maze of small roads outside of town, but you would have to bring your own, as no one appears to be in the bike rental business yet.
For trekking, small groups can expect to pay a flat day-rate of about 80,000 kyat (US$72) for a knowledgeable guide. Win Trekking is excellent, with 20 years of experience and sensitivity to the hill tribe cultures, including proficiency in multiple local languages. In Sai Win’s company we were welcomed everywhere for tea and chitchat. In one Aeng village, we used the local chairman’s house—a wood and bamboo box, with a porch, raised on stilts—to rest and cook lunch.
Here, while Sai Win and his students (young guides-in-training) prepared a simple feast of soup, salads and omelets, I sat with the chairman and his wife, who was suffering from a skin infection just below her right eye. The skin was black and puffed like a small balloon and she used a tissue to wipe her reddened sclera. A surgeon in Kyaingtong had tried to operate once already, Sai Win translated, and was unwilling to try again. She retrieved a tiny box of handmade items, and I bought a headscarf, wishing her robust future sales.
She was one of the few elderly women I met that week. At the Akha feast, small children and young women surrounded me. Few appeared over the age of 40. Some women lightly boasted of having raised between 8 and 15 children, their culture’s norm, and teased when they heard my answers to the usual polite questions. “Only one?” a few asked, meaning “Where is your family?”
The demographic reflected what the Akha Women’s Foundation reports: average life expectancy for villagers is only 43 years, on account of low access to medical care, malnutrition and harsh lives of manual labor, with few opportunities in the modern world. This description rang true in eastern Shan State, where many Akha have remained in farming villages through thick and thin, including periods soon after Myanmar’s independence when the Kuomintang and later the Communist Party of Burma were ascendant in the area.
The number of men also struck me as low, though several who had been hunting to supplement the feast emerged from the bush later on, evidently a bit downcast at returning empty-handed. Still, there was plenty to go around.
Notably, no one was dressed in the traditional Akha garb of indigo jackets and, for women, elaborate headdresses of beads and silver discs. All wore cheap, practical clothes, easily procured from Kyaingtong markets: t-shirts, cotton-print longyis for women, and trousers for men.
The scene pointed to the ridiculousness of tourists who complain to each other and in online trip forums that evidence of modernity or modified traditions is “inauthentic.”
Of course, the style of tourism that develops in eastern Shan State depends as much or more on the behavior and expectations of the people who visit (and the tour providers who indulge them), as on villagers themselves.
Buses leave from Tachileik daily at 8:00 am and noon. Tickets cost 10,000 kyat (or 400 baht).
There are also a few airlines flying between Tachileik or Heho and Kyaingtong, for about $50 one way. Check Air KBZ and Myanmar National Airlines for schedules.
Currently, foreigners are not permitted to travel beyond Kyaingtong overland.
Kyaingtong cuisine is above average in Myanmar. For breakfast, don’t miss the central morning market for a steaming bowl of soup with fresh wheat noodles or wontons, pancakes, paratha and more. For lunch or dinner, Lod Htin Lu restaurant serves wholesome Chinese food. Or, grab a fresh fruit smoothie or ice cream at Don’t Forget restaurant on the east side of Naung Tung Lake.
For centrally located, clean, low-cost rooms try Law Yee Chain Hotel (+95 84 21 114) or the Sam Yweat Hotel (+95 842 1235). Expect to pay $20-50 per night depending on the season. Sam Yweat Guesthouse (+95 84 21643) rooms can be had for $15, but it’s outside the downtown area, on Airport Road. The Princess Hotel (+95 84 21 319) is a step up, with rooms starting at $40 per night.
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.