National borders make for poor cultural boundaries. This is the reality with the northern Thailand border with Burma (aka Myanmar). Cross the Sai River between Mae Sai, Thailand to Taikilek, Burma and you will really be in Shan State, not Burma as the geo-political maps will falsely assure you.
Shan State makes up almost a third of Burma and stretches from the Thai border to China. The Sai River is just that, merely a river and The Shan live on both the Thai and Burmese sides.
Long ago, the town of Kengtung, located 200 kilometers north of the Thai/Burma border, was part of the Siamese Lanna Kingdom along with Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lamphun, Nan and Lampang. The Thais call the town Chiang Tung.
The Road to Kengtung
The road trip from Chiang Mai to Kengtung is worth it all by itself. Leaving Chiang Mai, you’ll soon enter rural northern Thailand which is quite scenic. It takes about 4 hours to arrive at the Thai border town of Mae Sai.
Have your papers in order when you cross into Burma. As of this writing, you will need a specific visa for entering the country by land at Taikilek and traveling north to Kengtung. You can get the proper e-visa for $50 at the official Myanmar government website here. Processing your visa application can take 2-5 days. Read the visa requirement from the official source before attempting to cross the border. Don’t rely on Wikipedia visa info.
You should pre-arrange your ride from Taikilek to Kengtung beforehand. I hired a driver for the entire trip. You can also take a public bus from Taikilek, but you may find it hard to get around Kengtung if you don’t have access to a vehicle.
As you travel north from Taikilek into the Shan Hills, you will soon find yourself in rural Burma. Houses will become simple shacks; electricity scarce; and traffic will fade away. You will quickly meet up with the river that will guide the road until you’re almost to Kengtung. It will become apparent that you are traveling in one of the poorest countries of the world.
Traveling deeper into Shan State is like being in a slow motion time machine. Every kilometer traveled northward is another year back in time.
The drive from Taikilek to Kengtung will take 4 hours or so. The road winds its way up the river gorge, past Shan villages and terraced rice fields. The Kengtung road is well paved. There are small towns along the road to stop at for lunch or bathroom breaks. The locals are polite and police presence is all but nonexistent. Don’t worry. You’re safer here than in my home town of Los Angeles.
You’ll want to make Kengtung before nightfall. The road is curvy with no guard rails or lighting. Besides, the countryside you’re passing through is scenic and fascinating. You’ll be happy to arrive in town after a long 9-10 hours on the road.
Once safe and sound in Kengtung, have a beer. Myanmar brand is great. Have two. Restaurant choices are limited. If you journeyed here for fine cuisine, you’ll starve.
Go to bed early. Get up early and head to the fascinating morning market.
Kengtung/Chiang Tung/Kyainge Tong
Kengtung (spell it however you like) is the cultural hub of eastern Shan state.
The town itself has a population of about 30,000. It is a poor town in one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s located on a plateau surrounded by the Shan Hills and served as an important crossroads to the ancient Chinese silk routes. China is only a few hours drive north.
As mentioned above, Kengtung is the forgotten sister town to Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai. My wife is from Lamphun, Thailand and her dialect is similar enough to the language spoken throughout this area that she can communicate easily. The famous northern Thai dish “gang hulay mu” (pork stew) originated in Kengtung. You can get a bowl of “kao soi” in Kengtung. (A Chiang Mai area staple. I wrote a mini-blog entry about it here.) There are crumbling walls still surrounding the town here and there, just like you’ll find in Chiang Rai, Lamphun, Nan, and Chiang Mai.
Kengtung has a bustling morning market that reveals its soul. It’s not only jostling with its Shan residents, but the many Hill Tribe folk from the surrounding hills have come to buy and sell. The market is a treasure trove of faces. The morning market also reveals how fertile the soil is here, with stalls overflowing with vegetables and produce.
The hilly town is dotted with temples and stupas. The streets can be narrow and often unpaved. Houses are simple, many without electricity or plumbing. The residents are pleasant and see life as getting better. No one stares at my White face. (At least that I noticed.)
The remnants of British colonial occupation have been all but erased by time. If you search hard, you may find the skeleton of a dilapidated colonial home perched on a hilltop. Wherever the Brits buried their dead has long ago been swallowed by either the surrounding scrub jungle or an expanding town.
There’s not much to do in Kengtung when night falls. Electricity is still a luxury and few businesses or restaurants have more than just a couple bulbs to carve away the darkness. It’s a town that goes to bed early and wakes early.
Buddhism: The Thai That Binds
The greatest bond Kengtung has to its Siamese sister kingdoms is Buddhism. Traditional Theraveda Buddhism-the kind practiced throughout Thailand.
Thai monks make pilgrimages to Kengtung to visit its wats and shrines. Thai monks often organize their followers in Northern Thailand to contribute charity monies to help support wats in Shan State. The wats in Kengtung are centuries old and hold some of the finest examples of Buddhist statuary and art.
From a broader perspective, Thai Buddhists view Burma as the purest font of their brand of Buddhism. After all, in Burma lies Shwedegon Pagoda, the holiest site for Thereveda Buddhism, and also Golden Rock, the second holiest site. Thai Buddhist iconography is often merely an inferior copy of the original and much older art work found throughout the wats of Burma.
My wife summed up how Thais view Burma in relation to their shared religion: “In Thailand the monks wear sandals; but in Burma they walk barefoot.” (Not necessarily always true, but you get the point.)
In Thailand, The Shan are called Tai Yai. In Burma, they are called the Shan and live in Shan State.
There are approximately 100,000 to 150,000 Shan that live in Thailand, almost all in Northern Thailand. The cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have many. The northern Thai countryside has many Shan villages and enclaves.
Shan State in Burma has 5-6 million Shan. Precise census data does not exist due to the rugged terrain, illiteracy (You just can’t mail out a census questionnaire.) and complete lack of government resources.
The Shan have never believed they were part of Burma and never will. The Shan State Army (an insurgent force) has been fighting for decades against the Burmese Army for independence. This insurgency is on-again off-again depending on the political winds blowing from the Capitol of Yangon (aka Rangoon). Lately, hostilities have heated up again with the Burmese central government because the Shan State Army failed to sign an offered peace treaty. Foreigners are forbidden to travel eastward from Kengtung to the Shan capitol of Taunggyi because of this insurgency.
Our driver to Kengtung summed it up succinctly. While driving about the Kengtung countryside, we came upon a narrow, potted paved road heading west. Our driver pointed westward and said “if you follow this road for 400 kilometers, it will take you to Burma.” For a second I was confused. ‘Aren’t we already in Burma?’ I said to myself. But then I nodded to our driver, understanding that we aren’t in Burma. We are in Shan State.
In the hills surrounding Kengtung are many indigenous peoples that we commonly refer to as Hill Tribe. Their actual ethnicities are Aksa, En, Lisu, Pa-O, Lai, Palaung, Akar, just to name of few. There are dozens and dozens of Hill Tribe ethnicities.
They live in small isolated villages and lead mostly a subsistence existence based on simple agriculture and raising livestock. Some of the Hill Tribe women sell tourist trinkets made mostly in Thailand to tourists who come to their villages.
The Hill Tribes in Shan State are far more numerous than their counterparts in Northern Thailand. Even though tourism to Shan State is a tiny fraction of the tourism that Northern Thailand sees, the Hill Tribes around Kengtung are more than familiar with White faces and their wallets.
I would urge travelers to Kengtung not to enter these Hill Tribe villages. For what purpose are you going? Buying their fake tourist trinkets seems condescending at best to me. Their village is not a zoo and they are not zoo animals. In fact, I hate zoos all together. Just stay out.
If you’re curious about Hill Tribe villages, you can observe them from a distance. If you’re out and about the country side, you’ll observe many Hill Tribe folk tending their fields, walking along the roads and going about their lives. No need to intrude into their villages and gawk.
A road trip to old Kengtung can change your view of the world and yourself. The poverty can be gritty, the children heartbreaking, the Buddhism ancient and The Shan honest and sincere.
Even today, you’ll find few tourists in Kengtung. And that’s the best reason to go.